Indigenous minister quits as gas project 'threatens tribes' survival'

15 August 2013

Two ministers have resigned after being forced to retract a report warning that planned gas drilling could “devastate” indigenous groups living in isolation. Deputy inter-cultural minister Paulo Vilca stepped down on 22 July, followed by the culture minister Luis Peirano the next day.

Vilca’s exit comes only three months after the resignation of his predecessor. In May, Ivan Lanegra quit over disagreements about whether indigenous peoples in the highlands would qualify for consultation.

On 15 July Vilca’s department published a report suspending plans to expand gas extraction in the Block 88 concession in Cusco, southern Peru. The concession is owned by the international Camisea consortium, led by Pluspetrol. Most of it covers territory supposedly reserved for indigenous peoples living in isolation from the rest of Peruvian society.

The Ministry’s report contained 82 objections to the company’s environmental impact assessment (EIA) for the expansion. However it was quickly withdrawn after publication online and never formally sent to intended recipients at the Ministry of Energy and Mines.

The consortium plans to build a pipeline extension, drill 18 new exploratory wells and conduct seismic testing. The official report warned that these activities would have “severe effects” for isolated peoples’ livelihoods by disrupting their ability to hunt, to access natural resources including water, and to follow their usual migration patterns. The company’s plans also implied that they intended to provide information directly to the isolated peoples, whereas the official report said that every effort should be made to avoid contact.

The Nahua population is thought to have halved following sustained contact with outsiders in 1984 (when exploration at Camisea first began) and the Ministry warned that the planned expansion could “devastate” the community, as well as putting the Nanti and Kirineri peoples at risk of extinction.

In March, the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination had urged the Peruvian government to ‘immediately suspend’ the expansion plans, in response to an appeal from indigenous organisations.

On 9 August, the International Day of Indigenous Peoples, the Inter-American Human Rights Commission called on states to respect isolated groups’ choice to live without contact “to uphold their fundamental rights, including the right to life and integrity, to their ancestral territories, to culture and health.”

Camisea has since responded to a slimmed-down evaluation of the EIA produced by the Ministry of Energy and Mines. A further assessment from the Environment Ministry and water authority is awaited.

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